The Dale Farm Eviction: Using Planning Laws to Justify Racism Towards Gypsies and Travellers

19.10.11

What a disgraceful day to be British.

In Basildon today, riot police have been leading the eviction of 86 Gypsy and traveller families from land they own at Dale Farm, but for which they do not have planning permission, hospitalising several residents, tasering others, and generally creating a situation that is reminiscent of the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher regularly used the police as her own private army. See here for more photos.

After a ten-year struggle between Basildon Council and the residents of Dale Farm, the last legal appeal was exhausted last week, when, in the High Court, Mr. Justice Ouseley ruled that the removal of the 86 families was necessary to avoid “the criminal law and the planning system being brought into serious disrepute.”

I don’t deny that the residents of Dale Farm who erected permanent structures on their land, without planning permission, have broken the law, but what seems to be generally ignored, in the haze of self-righteousness from settled people, is the blunt truth that Gypsies and travellers are rarely given planning permission for land they buy.

As Jake Bowers, a Romani journalist, explained in an informative booklet, “Gypsies and Travellers: Their lifestyle, history and culture” (PDF), Gypsy families that attempt to live on their own land are often denied planning permission … The government’s own studies state that over 80% of planning applications from settled people are granted consent, while more than 90% of applications from Gypsies are refused.”

In addition, it needs to be remembered that Gypsies and travellers were only forced into a position where buying land seemed to be a sound idea because the Tory government of John Major repealed the 1968 Caravans Act, which required councils to provide Gypsies and travellers with sites, and, instead, explicitly encouraged them to buy the land which they are then prohibited from using for any kind of permanent structure, as the Dale farm residents have discovered.

Three weeks ago, in my article, The Dale Farm Eviction: How Racism Against Gypsies and Travellers Grips Modern-Day Britain, I ran throughout he whole sad history of how, frost under Margaret Thacher, and then under John major, the stae’s obligationto provide for Gypsies and travellers was eroded, leading to the repeal of the Caravans Act, and I also pointed out how the Labour government did nothing to improve the situation, and the Tory-led coalition government’s localism bill will only make matter worse for Gypsies and travellers.

What also dismays me about this situation, as I also explained three weeks ago, is how racism is so obviously prevalent in settled people’s response to the Dale Farm story, despite the constant bluster that it is about “principles,” and this is apparent not only in the disgraceful outpouring of racist comments online following any article regarding Gypsies, travellers and the residents of Dale Farm, but also in the work of some so-called journalists like Amanda Platell, the Australian-born former press secretary to William Hague, who wrote a disgraceful article in today’s Daily Mail, in which she implied that all the men at Dale Farm were criminals. “[O]ne must wonder why the male travellers are so shy of the cameras,” she wrote. “What do they have to hide? I think we can all imagine the answer to that one.”

I also remain disappointed that the people of Basildon haven’t insisted that their council found another use for £18 million of their money, which could surely have been put to a better purpose than removing Gypsies and travellers from their homes at the cost of £45,000 a head, and I remain disturbed that, despite protestations to the contrary, the council did not seek to create a new site for the travellers, who need about 80 pitches. Although Tony Ball, the head of the council, pointed out that there were “a number of pitches available on the legal site next to Dale Farm,” there were not enough, and his major contribution to the discussion about where the evicted residents were supposed to go was to tell the BBC, “We have made the travellers aware of what is available, for example there is room at St. Helens but they have told us they do not wish to move to the North West.” What, I wonder, was he thinking when he made that comment?

As I explained in my previous article:

[T]he residents of Dale Farm were, essentially, driven into a trap by a society that, fundamentally, doesn’t want to make any provision for Gypsies and Travellers, and wants them to give up their way of life. When they refuse, as the erosion of their rights over the last 25 years reveals, settled society has no answer as to what it expects them to do. Basically, if Gypsies and Travellers won’t give up their way of life, settled people want them to disappear. It is the triumph of NIMBYism [Not In My Back Yard] — a deeply unpleasant manifestation of collective intolerance — and it fails to create a solution to a long-standing problem that settled people and their elected representatives have contributed to over many years.

As the events of this grim day continue, with the Guardian‘s coverage here, I’m cross-posting below two articles that also deal effectively with the issues raised. The first, from Comment is free in today’s Guardian online, is by the Dale Farm Solidarity group, whose website is here, which explains more about the problems facing Gypsies and travellers, and the second is by the journalist and science writer  Francis Sedgemore, from his blog, in which he highlights the hypocrisy of the government, comparing and contrasting its plans to ease planning laws for the rich, while still criminalising Gypsies and travellers, and, in a sober analysis of the situation, recognises where the Dale Farm residents have crossed a legal line, but also points out that today’s eviction smacks of what he describes as “the last form of acceptable racism in Britain.”

Dale Farm’s legacy goes beyond the 82 families who are homeless tonight
Dale Farm Solidarity group, The Guardian, October 19, 2011

The shadows of police and bailiffs loom large for Traveller families across the UK. Forced evictions cannot be peaceful — the violence comes from the brutal act of ripping someone from their home.

Dale Farm is the largest community of its kind, and its eviction is among the biggest in recorded history. Eighty-two families are facing the fact that they have nowhere to sleep tonight. The operation to do this has cost the taxpayer at least £18m.

Dale Farm’s size has also awakened many in Britain to the criminalisation of Travellers. Today’s operation has been harrowing for all the families and supporters involved. We have seen the police enter the site by smashing through a legal plot that was assumed to be safe by elderly residents seeking refuge. As police sledgehammered a wall on this plot, these elderly residents were seriously injured. A Dale Farm mother is in hospital and can’t move her legs after being beaten by police; tasers have been used, despite being declared inappropriate for public order situations; and seven people have been taken away in ambulances. But how did it get to this?

The police brutality seen at Dale Farm today is not a one-off, but part of a long-running criminalisation of Traveller communities and culture. Until 1994, all local councils had been required to offer a designated amount of Traveller pitches in their area. The Conservative government repealed this, leaving at least 5,000 families without a legal home.

Today, councils are 20,000 pitches short of their legal duties, and even these unenforced responsibilities will be removed by the Localism Bill. These guidelines, like the Travellers they’re designed for, have simply been ignored, the result being 18% of Gypsies and Travellers were homeless in 2003 compared with 0.6% of the UK population. This is why Dale Farm residents are engaging in civil disobedience to resist the eviction — the alternative is homelessness.

There is however something else that’s unprecedented about the situation at Dale Farm: the growth of a solidarity movement to promote the civil rights of Travelllers. At the eviction today, protesters and residents occupied the tops of towers and caravans together, resisting the brutal eviction for as long as possible.

The ideas that have coalesced around the Dale Farm community are simple. Travellers are simply asking for the right to exist legally. Despite the grim and brutal scenes we’ve seen today at Dale Farm, the least we can hope is that these messages will be heard.

Dale Farm – the final battle
By Francis Sedgemore, October 19, 2011

Now let me see if I’ve got this straight. The UK state, in the hands of its rightful proprietors, the Conservative and Unionist Party, is intent on overhauling planning laws so as to boost economic growth and facilitate housing development on non-urban land. As part of the government’s so-called ‘localism’ agenda, which is made possible through some typically Tory centralisation, housing development companies, among whom are some notable Conservative Party doners, will only be prevented from carrying out their plans if there is is an overwhelming case against (read: one that cannot be kept under the radar of community and media scrutiny). Government policy includes measures to fast-track the usual planning and consultation process, which is music to the ears of the ‘entrepreneurial’ class.

On the other hand, another group of entrepreneurs, this time in the form of a traveller community living in one of the grottier bits of Essex, is being met with all the obstructive powers that the state can muster. As I type, Dale Farm is being trashed by police and local government agents, and residents’ blood mopped up in advance of the arrival of the world’s television news crews and human rights inspectors. In addition to truncheons, fists and boots, police tasers were used at dawn against defenders the site. This, in contravention of Home Office guidelines which clearly state that the ostensibly non-lethal firearms are not to be employed in crowd control situations.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not defending the Dale Farm community’s building of housing structures on land they own, but for which there is no legal planning consent. There is a good argument for granting consent, but there is also due process, and travellers are not known for respecting such niceties. I can admire and respect the travellers for their creative contempt for authority, but the consequences are clear enough. If you pick a fight with the state, then for goodness sake ensure that you possess superior firepower, both physical and rhetorical. Fail to do so, and you will at the very least get a severe kicking from the state’s uniformed enforcers.

The Dale Farm community may not have a legal leg to stand on, but their moral case, while a little frayed in places, is sound, even if they are taking liberties with it for PR effect. This case has even attracted the attention of a senior UN adviser who accused Basildon Council of having broken human rights laws, and drew parallels with China and Nigeria.

Basildon Council offered alternative, bricks-and-mortar accommodation to the travellers, displaying a typically bourgeois British racism against gypsies and travellers. “We will socially engineer you out of existence,” the ruling class are saying in effect.

After lengthy legal toing and froing, the travellers lost their final appeal against eviction, and were left to await the inevitable. They and their crusty supporters then hunkered down for a final battle, but the writing was on the wall, and more than figuratively speaking. Before dawn this morning, the Essex police tooled up, beat their chests and shields, and steamed in through a back gate while a few suits and senior plods distracted residents with discussions at the front. Further proof, if proof be needed, that the state has no sense of honour or decency.

Is hatred of gypsies the last form of acceptable racism in Britain?

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

24 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Richard Osbourne wrote:

    I heard (it may not be true) that many of them own large houses in Ireland but choose to live at Dale Farm instead. Perhaps worth a little research?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Simon Wells wrote:

    I am concerned on a few issues here Andy- not least that the 18 million pounds that any council could barely afford is possibly being used as a “test” case, so that other authorities will have the jurisdiction to evict travellers from other sites. Despite the many and varied issues concerning Dale Farm, is a greater metaphor being formulated. I am not convinced this is localised to just Dale Farm?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I’ve seen those rumours too, Richard, but here’s a Spectator article in which the reporter asked Nora Sheridan, 76, about this exact topic:
    http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/7251253/another-voice-dale-farm-reprieved.thtml

    I ask her about the allegations that some of the travellers at Dale Farm own properties in Rathkeale, Ireland. “No, no we don’t. We’ve all got the same surnames, McCarthy, Sheridan, Flynn – they’re popular Irish surnames. If we owned properties in Ireland why would we want to live in a field in Essex?”

    A good question, surely …

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Simon. Yes, I agree with you about your concerns, and they strike to the heart of the problem. I can easily see this as being a test case, leading to further evictions, because, since 1994, the government has wanted to wash its hands of the responsibility for providing sites for Gypsies and travellers.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Simon Wells wrote:

    Yes- and equally, who’s bankrolling the eviction? I dare say (or though I have no proof) that the money is being funded from central government. I can’t see the locals – the fear of more services being scrapped- happy to lose libraries, community centres etc to evict some travellers on a piece of land. The laugh of it is – they ARE saving the tax payers money. The reality now with so many displaced people from Dale Farm – they will all go to the top of the housing list, taking accommodation from others who really need it. So who’s won? I’d ask anyone who agrees with the eviction to see how much housing benefit will now be incurred – how much emergency housing will be used to provide shelter- all of which they will be entitled too. Madness – but I sense other issues at play here- all of which resonates with the New Age Travellers pogroms of the 1980s

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Richard Osbourne wrote:

    Thanks Andy.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Anthony Paul Tripp wrote:

    The gestapo is everywhere.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Simon. Yes, I agree re: the echoes with the persecution of travellers in the 1980s, and also in your analysis of how this isn’t cost effective, demonstrating that it’s about racism, and specifically the continued persecution of Gypsies and travellers. The blunt truth is that the settled people’s response to Gypsies and travellers — wanting to pretend that they don’t exist — is only a stone’s throw away from making sure that they don’t exist — in other words, ethnic cleansing.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Joanna Lynn wrote:

    I was tweeting with someone from UK this morning. This is ridiculous.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks also, Richard, Anthony, Joanna, and everyone who’s shared this to date. I see there’s significant news coverage, but mostly as though it’s some kind of war, when it’s no such thing, of course.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Gabriele Müller wrote:

    shared

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Gabriele. Good to hear from you.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Charmaine Dolan wrote:

    Ditto. Good article.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Charmaine. I’ve been watching some of the military-style coverage this evening, and it’s been disturbing how much of it is presented as a spectacle, when people’s lives are being trashed.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    David V Barrett wrote:

    It was the use of tasers on unarmed civilians that really worried me. Questions need to be asked officially — Supreme Court and European Court of Human Rights.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I agree, David. Well. largely I agree. I was also reminded of some other bitter times when the state decided to crush dissent, when I saw riot police being used for a 7am raid, even though the residents had been told they wouldn’t be deployed. The change of plans was apparently because of some dubious-sounding “intelligence,” but the whole thing stank to me of an excuse to crack heads, which our “special” coppers still seem to love.

  17. Nemo says...

    It looks to me like in the UK the rich can just pay the law to do any thing! This is not the end of the war on Gypsies! The Government are only testing how far they can go! Oh love your site its book marked!

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Nemo. I think you’re right, and thanks also for the supportive words about the site. What can I say? I was brought up as a good Christian, taught to care about the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the downtrodden and the outcasts. I lost God along the way, but I kept my values.
    Welcome! And readers, please feel free to check out Nemo’s newly-created site, “The Modern Gypsy.”
    As he explains, writing about the eviction, “lots of these people [have] kids that go to school nearby and I bet some of these Gypsies work as cheap labour in the town. Okay so now they move, where to? looks like they will be booted every time they find a spot.”

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    David V Barrett wrote:

    The New Forest travellers, perhaps? I visited them and gave them some food the day before that horrendous raid.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Ah yes, thanks for that, David. I’m not sure how many people recall that, although the systematic oppression of the Travellers began in 1985, it continued after the Beanfield, with military-style operations in 1986 (like the eviction of Stoney Cross in the New Forest on June 1, 2006, as described by David) and 1988, and the creation of a horrendous exclusion zone around Stonehenge every year until it was finally reopened to the public on the solstice in 2001.

    This only came about after peaceful protestors standing on the verge outside Stonehenge were arrested, and the Law Lords finally ruled that it was not appropriate to arrest peaceful protestors, and that, as a result, the entire exclusion zone was illegal.

    It was writing about this that persuaded me that I could understand legal procedures, and could also take the small leap from writing about civil liberties to writing about human rights — and hello, Guantanamo …

  21. essex_chris says...

    So if it’s expensive or not ‘cost effective’ and you don’t agree with it – that makes it racist?

    Travellers sadly do suffer terribly from prejudice and racism. They really don’t help themselves, nor do their supporters – when they ‘cry wolf’ in many cases where it’s not prejudice but they say it is.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    I agree, but that’s not what I’m doing. Gypsies and Travellers were told to buy their own land, but have then been refused planning permission in 9 out of 10 cases, whereas settled people have 8 out of 10 planning applications accepted. Without planning permission for their land, and with the Tories having repealed the requirement on councils to provide sites to Gypsies and Travellers in 1994, so that there are nowhere near enough pitches, they literally have nowhere to go if they refuse to abandon their lifestyle, especially because life out on the road is more hostile than ever, as settled people have become progressively more and more intolerant.
    That’s the racism I was talking about.

  23. Marie says...

    They are dirty. They are thieves. They are uneducated. They are tax evaders. AND they squat illegally on the land of others where there is no sanitation or shower blocks???? Clean, proud/???? I don’t think so. Yes, I would like to see their kind punished for upsetting law abiding and clean living citizens who pay their dues to society. That is NOT a racist attitude but one of outrage at their deliberate flouting of the law of the land.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    I’ll more or less leave your comments to speak for themselves, Marie, but if I described any group of people as dirty, uneducated thieves and tax evaders – implying that this meant every single person in that group – I would expect to be criticised.
    What particularly saddens me is how, in many parts of society as a whole, the approach to the gypsies and travellers of three years ago has now extended to the unemployed, the disabled and immigrants, with politicians, the media and large numbers of my fellow citizens openly giving in to their impulses of hate, generalising wildly and obsessing about people who are not the problem. If you want to see tax evaders, why not look at the City, at Canary Wharf, at corporate boardrooms, where billions of pounds in tax is being avoided – enough to sort out all the country’s financial problems.
    See UK Uncut’s explanation here: http://www.ukuncut.org.uk/about/cuts

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